Frederick L. Brancati, M.D., M.H.S., 1959-2013
Frederick L. Brancati, M.D., M.H.S., an internationally recognized expert on the epidemiology and prevention of type 2 diabetes, and longtime director of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, died Tuesday after a long struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 53.
Brancati was a highly regarded teacher and mentor, having won numerous awards from medical students, graduate students and postdoctoral students at Johns Hopkins. Last year, he was named a Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine by the Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees, a high honor bestowed upon very few senior faculty members to recognize their exemplary service to the institution.
“He was a delightful human being -- smart, witty and fun to be around, “ says Michael J. Klag, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, whom Brancati succeeded as division chief. “He could have been a stand-up comedian or an author along the lines of Bill Bryson. Luckily for Hopkins and the health of populations everywhere, he decided to do clinical research and become a mentor par excellence.”
“Fred was a truly remarkable person,” says Lawrence J. Appel, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research, a joint program of Johns Hopkins University’s schools of public health and medicine. “To his colleagues, he was a brilliant scientist with a dazzling sense of humor. For the 200-plus faculty and staff in the Division of General Internal Medicine, he was an extremely supportive and effective leader. For his students and trainees, he was a superb mentor. In all roles, he was warm and compassionate. He deeply cared about people.”
Colleagues say Brancati’s research has had a profound impact on our understanding of the clinical epidemiology of type 2 diabetes and its complications. He was extraordinarily creative and employed observational and experimental methodologies to address an impressive array of issues related to the etiology, prevention, treatment and consequences of type 2 diabetes. In the process, he fundamentally changed how clinicians and researchers view this chronic illness.
He studied trends in diabetes prevalence across age, race and ethnicity in the United States; novel risk factors for type 2 diabetes; novel complications of diabetes, including cancer and lung function; and risk prediction for diabetes and diabetic complications. He chaired committees in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Diabetes Prevention Program, and the federal Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) trials.
Under his leadership, Brancati’s research colleagues found that A1c is an independent predictor of cardiovascular disease and diabetes — far superior to fasting glucose blood levels, which had been the standard — and that type 2 diabetes confers a higher risk of cancer mortality. Early in his career, he was part of a team that discovered that moderate exercise could prevent the onset of diabetes in people with impaired glucose tolerance.
Brancati graduated magna cum laude in 1981 from Harvard University with a B.A. in biochemical sciences. In 1985, he earned his M.D. from Columbia University and trained in internal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was also chief resident.
He arrived at Hopkins nearly 25 years ago, in 1989, for a general internal medicine postdoctoral fellowship, while he also earned a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He joined the Department of Medicine faculty in 1992, was promoted to professor in 2003 and was named division director in 2004. During his tenure, the Division of General Internal Medicine grew to include 80 full-time faculty, 150 part-time faculty and 17 postdoctoral fellows, and received over $30 million per year in NIH and other federal grants (up from $12 million per year).
Brancati was known for his ability to attract some of the very best faculty to Johns Hopkins, colleagues note. He had a stellar track record of mentoring women and minorities, and was recognized with a JHU Diversity Recognition Award.
“His death is a great loss to General Internal Medicine, to Hopkins, to his many mentees, and to diabetes research,” says Jeanne M. Clark, M.D., M.P.H., who became interim chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine in January when Brancati stepped down. Last year, she became the inaugural recipient of the Frederick Brancati, M.D., M.H.S., Endowed Professorship in Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine.
“Personally, I could never repay him for his mentorship, advocacy and friendship,” she adds, “but as the inaugural recipient of the Brancati Chair, I promise to do my best to build upon his legacy and to pay it forward, ever in his honor.”
In recent years, Brancati became the founding executive medical director of the Office of Business Development and Strategic Alliances and of Johns Hopkins HealthCare Solutions, an organization focused on bringing evidence-based research to the clinic and helping Johns Hopkins find novel revenue streams in economically tough times. One of these collaborations led to a National Institutes of Health-funded trial of a telephone and Web-based weight loss program, an enterprise that became the first commercial health care product marketed in connection with the Johns Hopkins name.
In 2011, Brancati won the prestigious Kelly West Ward for Outstanding Achievement in Epidemiology from the American Diabetes Association and the Chief of the Year Award from the Association of Chiefs & Leaders of General Internal Medicine.
Myron L. Weisfeldt, M.D., chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says Brancati’s good humor and strength were always evident, even as his body became ravaged by ALS.
“I do not think there are any among us who have not been terribly saddened by his loss and inspired by his courage and resolve,” Weisfeldt says. “At every moment of my contact with him throughout his illness, he was more supportive of me than I could be of him. There was never an occasion or event that he did not lift all of our spirits. At every stage his condition worsened to a greater degree than he had planned. But this did not stop his mentoring, his grant writing, his entrepreneurial efforts, his collegiality or his expression of joy at his accomplishments.”
In his spare time, Brancati was a basketball aficionado and even coached his daughters’ recreation league team. As coach, he had an interesting approach to drafting players, Appel recalls. His highest draft picks were based on whether the girls smiled, not on their basketball prowess. “Interestingly, this was an extremely effective approach: His teams did very well,” Appel says.
Says Klag: “Fred was able to reach across boundaries in science, in communities where his research would have the greatest impact, between academia and industry. And he was a wonderful human being at the same time. We have lost someone very special.”
Brancati is survived by his wife, Elizabeth M. Jaffee, M.D., an eminent cancer researcher and the Dana and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli Professor of Oncology and co-director of the Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center; and 16-year-old twin daughters, Maddy and Franny. Other survivors include his sister, Mary Lee Saarbach, and his mother, Lee.
Plans are under way for a future memorial. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations in his honor be made to the Johns Hopkins ALS Clinic.
Videos featuring Frederick Brancati can be viewed here: